Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga

The winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, The White Tiger, is the story of Balram, born in the darkness of India and privy to the seedy underbelly of a nation coming into its own. The story is told through a series of long correspondence from Balram to an important visiting Chinese national. The purposes of Balram's letters is to tell the real story of India - the story that a visiting high-ranking official would presumably not be exposed to. Balram's story is one of constant class warfare - as a driver for a very wealthy man in Mumbai, Balram is forced daily to compete with fellow servants for power within the household. He kowtows to his master and desires the success that money can buy - including blonde-haired prostitutes. At the same time, Balram is clear to decry the hypocrisy and constant bribery of the police and politicians rampant in his country, as he himself evades the constant demands for money from his own destitute family. While Balram as a character is clever at times, and a sympathetic narrator, his story is too one-dimensional to maintain credibility. The wealthy are all evil and selfish, and insensitive to the realities of those less well-off than themselves. The poor are ignorant and simplistic. Only Balram, in his own mind, is able to straddle the two worlds and explain them to the reader. The overall message of Adiga's novel is an important one - the struggles of a nation seeking to maintain the importance of its culture while emerging into a more modern society. Yet, at times Balram is too black-and-white in his critiques, making a mockery of the whole process.

A Mercy - Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's latest novel, like her Pulitzer-Prize winning Beloved, focuses on the slave trade and the effects of slavery on women and families. In Beloved, a mother chooses to kill her own children to protect them from the horror of bondage. Here, a slave mother is forced to watch her daughter, Florens, given away to a Dutch traveler as payment for a debt. She hopes that a life with a man who abhors dealing in human flesh, and whose wife has just lost her own child, will be an improvement on the life she herself would be able to provide. The story is told from the perspective of Florens, of Rebekka (her new owner), and Lina (the sole survivor of small pox in her Indian village), among others. While it is easy to get lost in Morrison's lyrical prose and become enveloped in the sadness of her characters, the reader is forced to work quite a bit to understand whose story is being told in a given moment - but the pay-off is tremendous. As with much of Morrison's writing, the focus is on women - their strength and ability to survive the most horrific of circumstances. As a woman, I find it impossible to read Morrison without feeling a debt to those who have come before, an appreciation for the life I have, and a measure of hope in the midst of continuing struggle.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Night in Question - Tobias Wolff

Author of This Boy's Life, Wolff is a creative writing professor in the English department at Stanford whose writing is very dear to me. His writing is straight-forward and engaging, with characters who end up in situations that are not quite always what they seem, yet still always strangely familiar. This collection of short stories does not have a single narrative theme or subject matter - but rather is a collection of writing Wolff has earlier published in magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. My favorites included "The Other Miller" about an American soldier in Vietnam who is told that his mother has recently passed away. The title suggests the mistake that has occured, and while the twist in the story is predictable, Wolff still manages to instill a sense of dread in the reader - the inescapable train wreck that cannot be avoided. Another story featuring a boy left home with his best friend's girlfriend presented the ubiquitous story of betrayal and love, told in a fresh way. When it comes to collections of short stories, I often want to read them here and there - to save the collection so it is not over all at once. But, as I expected, once I reached the end of one, I felt compelled to move on to the next. There is nothing flashy or ostentatious about Wolff's stories, but they manage to be both familiar and uncomfortable in a very insightful way.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi

I read this book back in 2003 after it first came out. I picked it up again this week after learning that several of the high school kids I work with were reading it for school. In many ways this seems like the perfect book for me - it is a book about women in Tehran, reading classic literature (Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen) in a women's book group led by Nafisi, a literature professor. So much of the idea of it reminded me of my time in college - studying literature and feminist theory and struggling to make the texts relevant to my existence. I was quite interested in the perspective of these young women, living under the veil, and reading books that were widely banned in their country. I wanted to hear more of their discussions and how they related the books to their own lives, and their hope for the lives they would one day be able to live. To contrast my own past reading of these books at an extremely liberal university with that of these women who were taught never to question their higher authority was frustrating, but also liberating. Outside of the first and last chapter, however, there is little focus on the actual book group and the discussion of the literature. Nafisi turns the book into more of a memoir (which is how it is billed) of her own life - her time in American, her marriages, her own struggle to teach her students to think for themselves in an country that severely punished such action. The book group becomes more of a vehicle for Nafisi to explore Iran's history and the role of literature in that world, as opposed to the focus of the narrative. This is fine, and makes for an interesting read, but not necessarily the book I wanted to read. As with most books about reading, I think it helps to have read and/or studied the authors that Nafisi discusses - though she chooses authors who are popular enough such that I suppose most readers will at least be familiar with the works through basic cultural literacy even if they haven't read them on their own. And, if they haven't been read, it makes for an even more interesting read, I might think - as Nafisi is repeatedly discussing censors who judge and discard books without having actually read them - and to do the same thing with these works when seen through Nafisi's eyes is in itself an interesting proposition. I do find this book fascinating because it works on so many levels -and I think I could probably read it again in another five years and find something completely different to like about it all over again.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

This Young Adult novel (or "YA" novel as my mom and I so cleverly like to call them) is creepy. As the book opens we know that a teenage Hannah has committed suicide. Clay, a young boy with an innocuous crush on the dead girl finds himself the recipient of a set of 13 cassette tapes. Hannah recorded the tapes before she died - an auditory suicide note - that explains her reasons for ending her life, and implicates the people who caused her so much pain. As Clay forces himself to listen to each tape, he is shocked by the secrets that Hannah kept, and how seemingly small interactions could have created such huge consequences. Along the lines, this book reminded me of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, which also provides the same message - that every interaction you have is important, and creates that butterfly effect in your life from which each subsequent action and reaction stems. Some of Hannah's reasons are ones that happen to everyone and seem quite mundane - the betrayal of a girlfriend, teasing by classmates - and others, while common, are much more serious - exaggerated gossip concerning her sexual reputation, general feelings of isolation and loneliness. But, I suppose that is kind of the point - that all of these factors taken cumulatively led this individual to take her life, and that each and every teenager without the support of family, friends, and their community, is at risk of finding their lives in a downward spiral. In some ways, the book felt hopeless to me. Hannah seemed too flip at times, too determined to give up despite the availability of help. In many ways she seemed spoiled, as if she believed the world should revolve around her, and that when she found out it didn't, she decided to commit suicide to teach everyone a lesson. As Clay listens to the tapes, he seems to have this same reaction - of knowing that he would have helped if only he knew Hannah needed it, but too insecure in his own ways to ever assume that she would even listen. The tapes seem unfair in their casting of blame at times (though some of the actions of her classmates are quite egregious). But, in the end, as with any suicide, I suppose the answer is that while no one is to blame, we are all to blame, and that all of us in all our interactions with people could always do more. Asher's narrative was clever, and a new twist on a very old problem. He managed to approach the subject to address young adults, but not in a way that was preachy or condescending, and hopefully not in a way that glamorized suicide as a revenge tactic. At one point, Hannah writes an anonymous note to one of her teachers hinting at her suicide and the desire to discuss the topic in her class. When the teacher raises it, instead of having a meaningful discussion, the issue is met with hostility and accusation. While schools seem slowly to be moving in the direction of providing grief counseling in the event of accidents or murders, and gathering the resources to talk about teen sex, abortions, and other previously taboo topics - I hope that depression and suicide prevention will also become a more talked about issue. Parents and teachers need to acknowledge that it is a real problem and that talking about it doesn't encourage people to act, it lets people know that there is help whenever and wherever they need it. I think Asher's novel would be a good starting point for any discussion on this difficult issue.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Netherland - Joseph O'Neill

In preparation for the 2009 Tournament of Books (http://www.themorningnews.org/tob/), I have been trying to read everything on the list...but for that list, I probably would not have picked up this book, which is billed as yet another view of post 9/11 New York. I feel like there have just been too many books on this topic, and I have grown tired of the limited ways in which the situation has been portrayed. Nothing about this book changed my mind. The book focuses on Dutch-born Hans who lives in TiBeCa with his British wife Rachel, and their young son. Post-9/11, they are forced to relocate to a hotel in Chelsea, where their marriage begins to fall apart as Rachel decides that she and her son would be safer back in London. Hans remains in New York, where he seeks a comforting environment in his weekly cricket games and a strange friendship with Chuck, a native of Trinidad. O'Neill's rambling narrative is heavy on the cricket (strange, but probably delightful to a reader who knows anything about cricket) and the internationl political perspective, but as a novel, I felt it failed to grab my attention, and left me thinking that it was little more than just another post-9/11 novel.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Center Cannot Hold - Elyn Saks

My friend Daniel, author of The Piano Tuner and A Far Country, is working on his third novel which features a charater with schizophrenia. In researching mental illness, Daniel came across this book, which he highly recommended to me. This is the memoir of Elyn Saks, a tenured USC law professor who graduated from Yale Law School, was the valedictorian of her undergraduate class at Vanderbilt and a Marshall Scholar. She also happens to be schizophrenic. Saks's first-hand account of her battle with the disease is absolutely incredible. Beginning in her early adolescence, Saks recounts the constant voices in her head, her hallucinations, and her paranoia that people are out to kill her or that she should kill herself. She ignores her personal hygiene and denies herself food under her belief that she should not nourish a being as evil and undeserving as herself. At nearly six feet tall, she is barely an emaciated 100 pounds. When she admits using marijuana on a couple occasions (in an obvious effort to self-medicate), her well-intentioned, but misguided parents send her to rehab, where she learns that only the weak resort to pills and medication. This brainwashing proves detrimental in her later years, when involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, doctors attempt to medicate Saks with psychotropic drugs and she believes she should be able to overcome her problems by "just being a stronger person." Despite my sympathy for anyone suffering from mental illness, I did find myself increasingly agitated and annoyed by Saks's inability to stick with a treatment program, to stay on her medication, and to maintain appropriate boundaries with her therapist. But, obviously, her inability to do these things is a direct function of her schizophrenia. Saks's story - and her honest portrayal of her own actions demonstrated how difficult it is for people suffering from mental illness to get help. Not just because they are repeatedly misdiagnosed, or because they mask their symptoms in an attempt to appear normal, but because the very behavior that indicates their mental illness is so off-putting that they often alienate themselves from anyone who would ever be in a position to help them. Saks's success in the midst of this debilitating disease is beyond impressive - and that she has found the courage and strength to tell her story will, hopefully, educate people to recognize the symptoms of mental illness - in themselves (to the extent that is ever possible), and in others.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Partisan's Daughter - Louis de Bernieres

Years ago, I read and fell in love with Corelli's Mandolin. So, I was interested to pick up de Bernieres's most recent novel, which has received a great deal of praise. A Partisan's Daughter takes place in London and is a sexually obsessed love story told from the alternating first-person perspectives of Chris, an unhappily married man, and Roza, a Yugoslavian immigrant who Chris initially mistakes for a prostitute. As the two spend increasing amounts of time together, Chris fancies their relationship as a budding romance. Roza's motives are a little more difficult to discern. She strings him along telling him stories from her past, fearing that he will lose interest if her stories are not shocking enough. Yet, Roza does not seem particularly to like Chris, rather viewing him as a toy to manipuate and deceive. While neither of the characters in this novel are likeable, the writing maintained my interest and I was eager to find out what, if anything, would come of the relationship. Plot-wise, this is a much less sophisticated endeavor than Corelli's Mandolin, but it was an interesting exploration of two people from different backgrounds dealing with the loneliness and uncertainty of life.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Forever War - Dexter Filkins

The Forever War is a non-fiction account of the United States' invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, by New York Times war correspondent, Dexter Filkins. Filkins provides a first-hand account of his experience on the ground, with our solidiers, evading gun-fire and learning how to make the split-second decisions about who to kill and who to spare. This very much reminded me of the HBO mini-series "Generation Kill," about the Marine unit that led the first invasion of the Iraq war - followed by its own journalist: http://www.hbo.com/generationkill/. Filkins's writing is gripping and engaging, and the stories he tells are full of heartache and loss, but as he jumps from incident to episode, it is often difficult to obtain a true understanding of the people he is telling his stories about. I did appreciate what I perceived to be Filkins's attempt to tell the story of the conflict from a variety of viewpoints - he was not entirely critical of the United States government for invading in the first place, nor did he completely villify the Iraqi insurgents. I found particularly interesting his observations of war as a way of life in Iraq, and the consistent need for people to switch alliances at the drop of a hat in order to save their own lives. This idea was in stark contrast to the image of Iraqis as religious zealots who turn to suicide bombing because of the lack of value they place on human life. Filkins also had a brief chapter that provided a small window into the thoughts of women in Kabul shrouded in their burkas, lamenting that they could be shopping in Paris if it weren't for their husbands' belief that fighting brings them closer to God. I would have loved to hear more from these women who are stuck in the middle of a devastating reality, but given no voice to oppose it. I appreciated this book because I did not feel as if it was bogged down in the politics of the war - though it did an excellent job of explaining why people were stuck in situations as a result of politics. At times it was too far sweeping and moved on too quickly from vignette to vignette - though in part this did give the feel of the ephemeral nature of things during war times. I do not usually tend to like historical non-fiction, anything political, or books about war. For these reasons, I was pleasantly surprised to find The Forever War immediately engaging, depsite the obvious sadness of its subject matter.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

I have been waiting in the library queue for this book for several months. It is a series of letters from a woman to her estranged husband concerning her son, Kevin who has just been incarcerated in a juvenile facility for a school shooting. It was interesting to read this so shortly after Lamb's The Hour I First Believed, which was about the Columbine shootings, from the perspective of a victim's husband. Kevin's mother never really wanted to have children. She runs a successful travel company and treasures her independence. From the moment her son is born, she is unable to bond with him, and he exhibits a determined defiance toward her. From a young age, he is hell-bent on destroying anything that he senses is loved by another person - and his mother explores, through her letters, whether his evil is innate, or whether he sensed her inability to love him. While the mother senses the danger in her child - and struggles with his lack of acceptance among his peers, the father consistently makes excuses for his son and fails to read his son's condescension and manipulation. I found the perspective of this book interesting. When kids engage in nonsensical violence, I think people either assume the kid is simply a bad seed, or they blame the parents for not teaching them properly. At different points in this book, I found myself angry with the mother who was unable to show her son any sort of affection, angry with the clueless enabling father, and angry with a child who was unable to engage in empathy. Accordingly, I think Shriver did a fine job exploring the various aspects of the never-ending enigma of what creates a criminal, and the complex interrelation between organic and environmental factors.